Even before Donald Trump’s extraordinary victory in the US Presidential election, two narratives had already been established about his political rise. His supporters saw it as an insurgent movement of the little people against the elite. Liberal opponents viewed it rather as the revolt of what Hilary Clinton infamously dubbed ‘the deplorables’: the rage of racists and bigots fuelled by hate.
Neither narrative is true. But both possess a pinch of truth.
The predominant view of the difference between Trump and Clinton supporters is in terms of categories such as race, gender, age, education and religion. 58% of whites voted for Trump, while 88% of African Americans backed Clinton. Trump was supported by 53% of men, Clinton by 54% of women. Similarly 55% of over-45s voted Trump, while 55% of 18-29 year olds chose Clinton. Three-quarters of those educated to postgraduate level supported Clinton; barely a third backed Trump. 81% of white evangelicals voted Trump, just 16% backed Clinton.
At first sight all this seems to give weight to the ‘whitelash’ thesis, the idea that Trump rose to power on a wave of rage from white, male Christians. The real story is, however, more complex. If we look not at the aggregate figures but at the shifts in support, we can tell a different story.
The majority of white voters, for instance, may have supported Trump, but he gained only 1% more white support than did Mitt Romney in 2012. Similarly only 1% fewer women voted for Trump than for Romney. On the other hand, 29% of Hispanics voted for Trump, an 8% swing compared to 2012. As for all the claims about millennials coming out against Trump, there was in fact a 5% swing towards Trump among 18-29 year olds, but a 4% swing towards Clinton among over-65s.
Insofar as there was a lash, then, it was a far more complex one than a simple ‘whitelash’. One key change was in how the poor voted. 53% of those earning less than $30,000 voted Clinton, while only 41% voted for Trump. These figures have led some to dismiss the idea that Trump’s success was rooted in working class hatred of the Washington establishment. Butwhat the figures show is that among the poorest sections of American society, who traditionally overwhelmingly vote Democrat, there was a huge 16% swing towards Trump as compared to 2012.
This shift relates to perhaps the most striking difference between Trump and Clinton voters. More than three-quarters of Trump supporters feel financially worse off today than in 2012, 72% of Clinton supporters feel better off. And asked about whether life for the next generation, 59% of Clinton supporters thought it would better, 63% of Trump supporters thought it would be worse.
That sense of pessimism about both the present and the future has become emmeshed with a sense, too, of being politically abandoned and voiceless, of Washington being deaf to their interests. An exit poll on Tuesday suggested that 72% of voters thought that ‘the economy is rigged to the advantage of the rich and powerful’, 61% felt that ‘traditional parties and politicians don’t care about people like me’, and three-quarters believed that ‘America needs a strong leader to take the country back from the rich and powerful’. Many have become hostile to the policies associated with the liberal elite, and with their deafness to working class interests, such as globalization, free trade, less restrictive immigration.
America, like most Western societies, has in recent years become both more socially atomized and riven by identity politics. Atomization has played into the hands of the deracinated middle class. Identity politics have helped foster communities defined by faith, ethnicity or culture.
For many working class communities these two processes have helped both corrode the social bonds that once gave them strength and identity and dislocate their place in society. At the same time, many within such communities have come to see their economic and social marginalization primarily as a cultural loss, turning, like many other groups in the USA, to the language of identity to express their discontent. The reframing of class in the language of identity politics has inevitably created hostility towards those regarded as culturally different. Hence the growing hostility to immigration and to Muslims, the increasing desire to protect borders and defend national culture. It is not that Americans have suddenly become bigots and xenophobes. It is rather that genuine political and economic grievances have come to take bigoted forms.
The response of liberals and progressives has only helped to sharpen this trend. Rather than take seriously the grievances of such working class communities while also challenging the bigotry, they abandoned those communities while also damning whole sections of the electorate as bigots, racists and unredeemable. For many within traditional working class communities, the only people who seem to listen to them are reactionaries such as Trump. Many Trump supporters are indeed racist. But many are not. In 2012, more than a third of Barrack Obama’s support came from white voters without a degree; outside the Southern states that figure rose to almost half. And as the New York Times’ Nate Cohn put it, ‘Clinton suffered her biggest losses in the places where Obama was strongest among white voters’ and that the ‘election was decided by people who voted for Obama in 2012’. One of the most telling statistic of election night was that while Trump’s total vote was around a million down from the Republican figure in 2012, Clinton had nearly six million fewer voters than Obama. Why? Because while Obama embodied for many ‘hope’, Clinton seemed to represent perfectly the Washington insider, deaf to working class cries and interested largely in the welfare of the rich and powerful. This was not, as Nate Cohn put it, ‘a simple racism story’.
But if the rise of Trump to the White House represents anger and disaffection with the elite, it is no popular revolt. It is rather an expression of the absence of real revolt. Four out of five Trump voters saw the ability to bring change as his most important quality. Trump can be seen as an agent of change only because real agents of change, progressive social movements that can truly transform people’s lives, have largely eroded.
What we are witnessing is a crisis both of the political class and of progressive opposition to it. The political elite is so disengaged from the electorate that it failed to recognize the depth of anger and disaffection from mainstream institutions and its party machines have become so rusty that they could not check the Trump surge. And oppositional movements are so weakened that Trump can be seen by many as an agent of change.
It is this dual crisis that is unstitching politics, and not just in America. The same phenomenon is at play in Europe, driving the success of the reactionary populist groups from the Sweden Democrats to the Front National in France. And globally, too, from Turkey to India, from Egypt to South Africa, the old order is coming unstitched while opposition movements that have emerged to give voice to that disaffection are often rooted in religious or ethnic identity, and are often sectarian or separatist in form. As in Europe and the USA there is a hole where progressive social movements should be.
There have been many apocalyptic prognostications in the wake of Trump’s success. His victory, many claim, will lead to everything from the rise of fascism to the end of the West. The real issue lies less with Trump himself, than with the dual crisis of the elite and of opposition movement. It is how we address this, and in particular whether we are able to build real movements for change, that will shape the future, and not just in the USA.
The caricatures are by John Springs from the New York Review of Books and Joe Mathieu in the Boston Globe
“You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right? The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic — you name it. And unfortunately there are people like that. And he has lifted them up. He has given voice to their websites that used to only have 11,000 people — now have 11 million. He tweets and retweets their offensive hateful mean-spirited rhetoric.
Now, some of those folks — they are irredeemable, but thankfully they are not America. But the other basket — and I know this because I see friends from all over America here — I see friends from Florida and Georgia and South Carolina and Texas — as well as, you know, New York and California — but that other basket of people are people who feel that the government has let them down, the economy has let them down, nobody cares about them, nobody worries about what happens to their lives and their futures, and they’re just desperate for change. It doesn’t really even matter where it comes from.
They don’t buy everything he says, but he seems to hold out some hope that their lives will be different. They won’t wake up and see their jobs disappear, lose a kid to heroin, feel like they’re in a dead-end. Those are people we have to understand and empathize with as well.”
—Hillary Rodham Clinton, September 9th 2016
So much for not taking “seriously the grievances of such working class communities while also challenging the bigotry, they abandoned those communities while also damning whole sections of the electorate as bigots, racists and unredeemable.” But you were right about one thing: she lost because of perception, not reality (“Clinton seemed to represent perfectly the Washington insider, deaf to working class cries and interested largely in the welfare of the rich and powerful”). Had these working-class Trump voters actually bothered to take a look at her platform, they would have known better. Example:
“My suspicion, based on little more than reading the morning paper over the years, would be that in their rush to save money by offshoring, America’s corporate managers inadvertently dispersed centers of expertise, including supply chains, that had long anchored particular manufacturing sectors in the United States—thereby destroying what the Harvard Business Review calls “industrial commons.” No manufacturer can be self-sufficient, especially not a high-tech one; making complicated things well requires a community of other skilled makers. If the only source for needed parts is in Japan, an American automaker may feel obliged to shutter an American factory.
. . .
To trade freely or not to trade freely . . . It seems to be hard to think outside of this particular box. Trump doesn’t. Sanders doesn’t, either, really: he voted against every free trade agreement that came through the Senate. Clinton voted for some free-trade agreements and against others, depending on her assessment of the protections afforded by each agreement to workers and the environment. That may sound too nuanced for this election cycle, but I have even worse news. I’ve spent a day and a half now puzzling over this blog post, and just now I googled for “Hillary Clinton industrial policy,” to see if she had gone on the record with any ideas. It turns out that there’s a fact sheet on her campaign site, corresponding to a speech she gave in December 2015, that proposes investing in America’s “industrial commons.” I swear I didn’t know this until I reached the paragraph you’re now reading. Her fact sheet is hopelessly nerdy, a bit verbose, and rather bland—not unlike this blog post. But Clinton got there ahead of me. Never let it be said that she doesn’t do her homework.” http://www.steamthing.com/2016/07/free-trade-jobs-rage-and-policy.html
“Never let it be said that she doesn’t do her homework.” You said she doesn’t do her homework. Hence this comment.
Thanks for that. Policy analysis was the elephant no longer in the room.
A “liberal” used to be a tolerant, moderate, open-minded person who could see both sides of the argument – above all, a person calm even under trying circumstances, like those of the 1930’s.
Nowadays, a liberal is generally an intolerant, extreme, bigoted person, seeing only their side of the argument while insulting and demonising opponents.
Above all, many liberals are now shrill and hysterical – hence the rise of Apocalyptic Liberalism, the conjoined twin of nationalist populism.
The explanation ? – perhaps that most of today’s liberals, while occasionally genuflecting towards compassion, really only believe in consumer capitalism (with plenty of well-paid graduate jobs) and having libertarian private lives.
Incisive essay, well reasoned and articulated. Couldn’t agree more. Hillary Clinton represents old style Tammany Hall machine politics, big on talk about the narod but delivering only to insiders.
Thank you for this – the best reading of the voting stats I have come across.
Although I agree with your summarisation in spirit, I think it is worth remembering the role of Bernie Sanders in this. I’m in the camp of those who think he would’ve/could’ve won. Certainly polling in the last days of the primaries suggested he would. So I don’t think “progressive social movements that can truly transform people’s lives have largely eroded”. They are still there. This was so nearly a seismic shift in US politics in the other direction.
The story in the UK and the US is of a fight for the souls of the center left parties. It would be nice to think the Democrats who blocked Sanders will learn from this. If they don’t then it is terminal. It would be even nicer if the Labour conservatives got the message too. A swing to the left would be rewarded at the ballot box – so long as there is a passionate leader at the helm.
I firmly blames the out of touch Democrat National Committee for this Trumping.
This is a very thoughtful, compelling analysis. I appreciate your sensitivity to broader social and political forces than mere individuals.
For me the real crisis, rather than the ones you allude to, turn on your very well put phrase ” It is rather that genuine political and economic grievances have come to take bigoted forms.”
In this respect the rise of Trump was an expression of populist nationalism in relation to liberal internationalism with the former actually and perceiving to be shut out both politically and economically by liberal internationalists.
This was a popular revolt which gained expression by voting for Trump and against Clinton. The absense of ‘real’ revolt that you mention or the ‘real’ agents of change are simply allegories for more liberalism whether national or international which populists reject because they perceive liberal values to favour minority interests over and above their own.
From there on you create false dichotomies between supposed political elites (liberals) and an effective progressive opposition (liberals). In this respect, politics is far from unstitching but is actually deepening in order to incorporate both populist and liberal values and both national and international levels of resource management in order to alleviate actual and perceived poverty. In these terms the crises of which you speak are your own
subjective rejection of populist values and national frames of reference for resource management cojoined with a sense of grief that democratically, the liberal values and the international frame of reference you desire lack sufficient democratic support.
Therefore the real challenge is not some resolution between liberal political elites and an insufficient liberal progressive social movement but finding a way of synthesing or balancing both populist values and liberal values and national and international levels of resource management without resorting to bigotry and denial.
Liberalism is not the only possible form of politics.
The truth these days is always far more nuanced than the hard left or the far right maintain, which is why the likes of Corbyn and Le Pen are probably (hopefully) earmarked for oblivion – throwbacks to an earlier age of dishonesty and misrepresentation that is currently undergoing its last gut-renching fit. Our job (the job of the mainstream) is to dispense with them as thoroughly and efficiently as possible, before moving on to the next stage of our social evolution. When it’s put like that it sounds almost inevitable, doesn’t it? A sort of ruction-free transition from the old to the new, one that doesn’t cost much in terms of suffering and human life. If only things were that simple. Progress, unfortunately, isn’t always as uneventful as habitual bystanders like me would like it to be. It unfolds gradually, with intermittent convulsions that have the potential to stop us in our tracks and send us hurtling backwards into extinction. Archaeology thrives on the ruins of once great civilizations that failed to negotiate the kinds of existential challenges we’re facing now. Yeats made us familiar with the process – the centre cannot hold, the best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity. Right now the best are standing on the sidelines, or sitting uncomfortably in one or other of the two warring camps, watching, waiting, hoping their rather timid commitments to neutrality or extremism will be enough to shake up the system and restore them and their loved ones to a modicum of prosperity, just enough to circumvent an irrevocable commitment to conflict further down the line. They are expedient extremists, or fence-sitting hedge-betters, rather than true believers of the sort real extremism thrives on. You might say that they have chosen to be temporarily immoral.
Temporary immorality is not the natural condition of the true believer. Le Pen’s most fervent supporters deny the Nazi holocaust. Corbyn’s most fervent supporters deny the Soviet holocaust, and regard Islamic extremism as some sort of justifiable anti-Western backlash rather than the anti-Muslim, anti-human cult that it is. Despite the intensity of the current anger, most ordinary people don’t subscribe to either of these lunacies. In other words, it is the true believer’s denials – rather than the fence-sitter’s or the defector’s – that pose the greatest threat to peace in our time. But that is true, and will remain true, only if the fence-sitter and the temporary defector shed their timidity and come together to defeat the forces they don’t yet quite have the courage, or the unifying concepts and narrative, to desert and confront. For that to happen we need real new age leaders to come forward, people with the linguistic power to galvanize the pragmatists before history runs away with them. We haven’t seen those leaders yet, and if we’re destined to become another archaeological ruin, we won’t.
Left and right wing populism are dragging us into a new dark age. Just how dark that new age becomes depends on how effective we are in confronting and destroying them. If we fail in that urgent and necessary task, the combined irrational force of left and right wing populism has the potential, and certainly the emotional wherewithal, to confront and destroy us.
The paradigm shift that began with the crash in 2007/08, continues unabated.
– Ray Halpin, unemployed builder’s labourer, Dublin.
“Trump can be seen as an agent of change only because real agents of change, progressive social movements that can truly transform people’s lives, have largely eroded. What we are witnessing is a crisis both of the political class and of progressive opposition to it. The political elite is so disengaged from the electorate that it failed to recognize the depth of anger and disaffection from mainstream institutions and its party machines have become so rusty that they could not check the Trump surge”
Of course. But why is that happening? Isn’t it that self-proclaimed ‘progressive social movements’ have given up on persuading people and instead hijacked government programmes, media outlets and universities to try to bully and nag everyone else into accepting their divisive and increasingly absurd identity politics agendas?
Isn’t it also true that the modern state is now so big and irresponsible (borrowing wildly from the future to fund anything our leasers think might buy votes) that it is now largely out of control so that mere politicians can no longer control it?
I spent most of my working life in British public service. Watching how poorly so many UK official processes now behave towards the public (perhaps above all the police, who seem to have taken it on themselves to invent new laws oppressing free speech while allowing traffic jams to spread across the country) I don’t wonder that mere voters now feel angry and frustrated.
The hard fact is that everything positive we now have has been based on Enlightenment values. Those values are now assailed by ‘progressive’ movements as reactionary/white/privileged/irrelevant/sexist/ heteronormative (choose your jibe). Governments seem to have given up on defending them: who wants to be seen on YouTube patiently defending liberal tolerance against some or other screaming SJW activist?
Either the sensible middle keeps the lunatic collectivist populist fringes at bay. Or they expand and squeeze out the sensible middle. The latter is what’s now happening, with as you say liberals/progressives hooting as things fray.
Now THIS is a masterly analysis!!
(Just discovered you and your work, and therefore your blog, Mr Malik, through reading about it on the World Socialist Website, wsws.org. I have yet to read your book Strange Fruit and look forward to it.)
I have waited to read your analysis of the Trump vote and I thought your piece was very good as always Kenan.
‘ It is not that Americans have suddenly become bigots and xenophobes. It is rather that genuine political and economic grievances have come to take bigoted forms.’
If those grievances have found their governmental expression in the right it is due to a very fundamental failure in liberal democratic thought itself , which has been hidebound by the increasingly toxic influence of identity politics Every objection that a non-bigoted person in a liberal democracy may have to globalization, leaves them open to the charge of having some commonality with the bigots. Any commonality is taken as a sign of endorsement and is judged accordingly. Few in liberal democracies, taking themselves to be good people, are willing to be judged in this manner, and the discourse, a vital discourse, it stopped before it even properly starts. This reaches up to the highest levels, where we have ostensibly good centrists who can only ever tinker around the edges of globalization, trying to bring in fairer civil law and cultural improvements while the very foundations of the societies they inhabit are crumbling. Whether this crumbling is good or bad is politely avoided as they hide behind the idea of it as an inevitable process of history. Many people who are not bigots held their noses and voted Trump to smash this process. My own greatest distress is that the even bigger battle to combat climate change may fall because of this divide.
I agree with you on the importance of free speech and the pernicious effects identity politics have had on this. Where we differ is on the question of the value of sub-global states. You see them as an impediment to enlightened global governance and wish that their demise could be brought about in a civilized way. I don’t think see you can really begin to dismantle them in a civilized way at all if that is desirable, until you properly understand what they are. At the moment, sub-global states in all their infinite variety – and there is this variety, a variety that get reduced down to ‘nation states’ in too much discourse. Many of them are not nation states at all, but multi-ethnic products of power, chance and compromise. They are incredibly fluid, complex and varied manifestations of layer upon layer of social contract and need to be understood as well rainforest for example, before we start to deforest/clear borders. It is important to acknowledge that this clearing of borders is as much in the interests of unfettered fundamentalist capitalism as it is in cohesive global governance and that the establishment of the latter will not guarantee it’s ability to govern the former and bring it to account in terms of environmental depredation.
Conversly, it is a terrible irony that those bigots of the right who understand the value of localised states cannot or will not understand the current danger to the larger global ecosystem that it all depends on. I would argue that it is imperative to have open discussions about the value and nature of states in order to bring these most ardent opponents of globalization out of fight or flight mode and into a calmer atmosphere where we can try to begin to properly convince them that climate change is a problem that exists outside the minds of liberal leftists. Can we turn Trump into a green before he gets assassinated by one?